We hear a lot these days about the courage and sacrifice of our key workers forefront in the fight against Covid-19. It is right and proper to applaud them with hearts of gratitude.
And we do.
But what of those who work tirelessly, silently, and behind the scenes for years. A lifetime? Unpaid carers we don’t notice so much, taken for granted, thanked by few?
Some years ago, I worked as a legal secretary for a law firm in the high street of a small, Dorset town. One client, an elderly gentleman, would pop in for a chat before heading off for lunch at The British Legion. He enjoyed regaling us with stories of “The War” and his two wives, both sadly deceased.
He also lamented the absence of visits from his stepdaughter, sad that she seemed so busy. All the time.
But he raved about his “companion”. The woman, his neighbour, though busy with her own family, cooked, cleaned and shopped regularly for him. She even took him out for drives. ‘I’d like to pay her,’ he would say, ‘but she won’t hear of it.’
The dear old gentleman, upon his death, left his house to his stepdaughter but he didn’t forget his companion and left her a generous legacy. I could be cynical. Working in probate does that. Nothing swivels the neck faster than the whiff of money.
But not this time.
A sweet old man who lived a quiet, honest life enjoyed the simple joy of friendship in his last, otherwise lonely, years.
His neighbour, his friend, gave him that.
My maternal grandmother, Madeline Dorothy (“Granny” to me, “Maddie” to others), lived a carer’s life without fanfare or material reward. The daughter of a Baptist minister, Maddie was expected to stay home and look after her mother, Ethel.
But Maddie was a rebel with a cause.
She heard the call and answered: at seventeen, she ran off to London and trained as a nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital. It took Ethel twenty years to talk to her daughter again.
Maddie carried on nursing until she married and had children. By the time my mother was a teenager, both Ethel and her sister, Carrie, widowed and unmarried respectively and both of reduced means, moved in to the family home.
Many years later, my grandfather, a gifted but complicated soul, left Maddie for her best friend. Maddie lost her beautiful home and moved to a flat in Chichester with Ethel and Carrie, whereupon she looked after them both until their dying days.
I could not even contemplate how life must have been for Maddie at that time. I only saw her through my little-girl eyes as the playful, wonderful Granny I knew and adored. But even as I entered adulthood, I never heard one word of complaint or bitterness from her.
She got on with her day, chatted with everyone and kept up with current affairs. She loved people.
Through her seventies and eighties, she joined a flower club, attended church, and pedalled like the clappers through Chichester’s bustling streets on her adult-sized tricycle.
Maddie travelled to Canada to visit her brother and at eighty, she visited me and my family in California, her first and only time in America.
And she made the best lemon curd in the world.
Maddie also loved to iron. I called her “Mrs Tiggywinkle” for her love of linen and starch. Above all, she owned a trouser press.
‘Why are you ironing men’s trousers, Granny?’ I would ask on my visits, perplexed by her massive pile of ironing.
‘They’re for Frank’.
‘He lives down the road and can’t manage with such things. I offered, poor man…’
There were others. Not just Frank, but men, women, neighbours, friends. Elderly. Housebound. Alone. Maddie, by then in her 80s, was older than them all.
The only time I heard Maddie mutter annoyance was in her kitchen. It was narrow and cramped with old-fashioned cupboards hung unevenly on the wall. She used a pressure cooker for everything which blew like a steam train. What went on in that kitchen I could only guess.
Mealtime arrived but before she served ours, she would dash off with a covered plate in hand.
‘Back in a minute, dear’, she would call as she disappeared down the road with Frank’s supper. He couldn’t cook.
Frank asked for Maddie’s hand in marriage.
‘Why don’t you marry him?’ I teased, already knowing the answer.
‘Oh my dear,’ she said, her face alight with the humour that kept her young. ‘He only wants me as a nurse maid! I don’t mind cooking his meals, but to share his bed too? Never!’ Then she leaned in and smiled conspiratorially. ‘There’s only ever been one man for me.’
Maddie wanted to drive a sports car. She mused about being a farmer’s wife. She wished she could dance like Ginger Rogers. Maddie wanted to do a lot of things, but she never wavered in her call to serve others. And she loved my grandfather until the day she died at ninety-four, forgiving him everything, regretting nothing.
These are the Silent Ones who change our lives.
Thank You, Maddie. Thank you all.
I would like to thank Ann Edall-Robson’s Quiet Spirits and our resulting discussion that inspired this post.
Sherri is a writer and photographer bringing her memoir, Stranger In A White Dress, A True Story of Broken Dreams, Being Brave and Beginning Again, to publication. She is published in a collection of national magazines and anthologies. Sherri blogs at A View From My Summerhouse and contributes as a columnist to Carrot Ranch, an online literary community. In another life, Sherri lived in California for twenty years. Today she lives in England, weaving stories from yesterday, making sense of today, bringing hope for tomorrow.
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